Like the Wind, Kiko Villamizar Pushes the Culture Forward

Austin's Colombian instigator brings his music, message, and mission to Todo el Mundo

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

The Barranquero, or Andean motmot, is an early-rising bird that lives in the Colombian mountains and vocalizes with severe and profound claims that move other birds to start their day. Kiko Villamizar says it's his favorite bird because "it's got a rough voice, he doesn't sound pretty, he just makes a lot of noise to wake everybody up."

Since landing in Austin 16 years ago, Villamizar has become a leading voice in Austin's Colombian music scene, facilitating the transference of traditional forms to a newer generation while creating opportunities for fresh sounds to ignite. The 44-year-old's soon-to-arrive third album, Todo el Mundo, is a beautifully wrought ensemble of traditional cumbia and experimental rhythms with the transformative theme of wind, following two previous LPs oriented around elemental forces: 2015 debut La Remolacha (earth) and 2017's Aguas Frías (water). His new single "Sembrá el Maíz" was described in The New York Times' weekly music playlist as "an original urging hard work and patience, even in the face of climate catastrophe."

Like the Barranquero, Villamizar's music, message, and mission to serve is a wake-up call for others to listen.

Besides his formidable talent as a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Villamizar has collaborated with Austin dignitaries like Grammy Award-winning producer Adrian Quesada and Grupo Fantasma. His nonprofit, Casa de la Cultura, enables children of all income levels to access musical training, and the WEPA Cumbia Festival he founded in 2017 continues to bring Colombian artists and cumbia musicians from all over the world to Austin.

All that considered, Villamizar has come to exist so thoroughly in the connective tissue of Austin's Colombian music scene, he could be considered a genre elder – though he'll never admit it.

Born in Miami to Colombian parents, Villamizar had a turbulent childhood with his mother, working odd jobs on his family's farm in Colombia and bouncing around the U.S. before picking up guitar at 16 because he'd broken both his legs in a car accident and had nothing else to do. He grew up part of a long line of storytellers and performers, surrounded by music and inheriting a sixth sense for the crowd. His grandfather owned some land near the Colombian coffee farm and every Sunday family members would gather to drink, eat, and sing. Villamizar always sang along with the adults while many cousins his age played. Still, he says he "never had the discipline to learn an instrument" until after his life-altering accident – which killed his younger sister.

“I’ve always viewed him as a shaman that comes down from the mountains, leaves knowledge, and goes back up with a parrot on his shoulder.” – Superfónicos’ Nico Sanchez on Kiko Villamizar’s influence

"There was a lot of survivor's guilt, and music saved my life," says Villamizar. "But I got bored with showing off how pretty I sang. I started wanting to put a story behind that one day."

Seeking the tools to further his musical education, an 18-year-old Villamizar studied jazz for two years at the University of Miami, after which he bounced around the U.S. and Colombia as a street performer and professional musician before landing in Austin in 2005 following the death of his mother.

"I moved to the opposite of New York, which was Texas – and I didn't want to get lynched, so I moved to Austin," he reasons.

Austin in 2005 was just starting to welcome Colombian cumbia; being a border state and home to thousands of Mexican Americans, the capital city has always leaned toward its Norteño roots (after all, it used to be Northern Mexico). Cumbia originated in 1800s Colombia as a fusion of African drum beats, Indigenous instruments, and, later, European influences like guitar and accordion. The danceable two-step found its way to Mexico via singers like Luis Carlos Meyer and Aniceto Molina, where it blossomed into myriad regional subgenres, including Tejano music.

When Grupo Fantasma guitarist Beto Martinez left Laredo to attend the University of Texas in 1996, the dominant local Latin music flavor was Mexican cumbia, which features heavy Norteño influences from Monterrey as well as mariachi elements. Many of the Spanish-language bands that didn't specialize in Mexican cumbia, like La Tribu or Cula du Cafe, primarily played salsa or more Cuban-influenced rhythms.

"Cumbia and Mexican music were mostly on the Eastside and we weren't really going there as college kids since it was a whole different scene," says the guitarist and producer, who is also in Brownout, the Los Sundowns, and Money Chicha. "Around the early 2000s is when this style of cumbia really started to take hold."

When Villamizar arrived in Austin, it was obvious to him that the genre stood as the almost universal entry point to Colombian music.

"I chose cumbia because cumbia makes everybody agree. Everybody knows how to throw their hip at the same time, but they don't know how to talk about Universal Basic Income together," says Villamizar. "When I saw Mexicans here dancing to it, it's a round dance, it's Indigenous. They're going counterclockwise, in a circle, intergenerationally and as a community, not as a couple trying to seduce each other. I was like, 'This is the organizer of people here.'"

Villamizar quickly established himself as a wellspring of traditional Colombian music, performing cumbia and conjunto at taco joints for tips, recording at Quesada's studio, and teaching music to the youth. In 2016, he and fellow Colombian Juan Camilo Agudelo formed the jam group Wache to explore the roots of Afro-Colombian music, which is how Bogotá-descended bassist Nico Sanchez and gaitero (flautist) Jaime Ospina, now both in Superfónicos, connected.

“I chose cumbia because cumbia makes everybody agree. Everybody knows how to throw their hip at the same time, but they don’t know how to talk about universal basic income together.”
– Kiko Villamizar

"His house became a cultural hub," says Sanchez. "One thing Kiko is good at is connecting people. He was instrumental in solidifying the Colombian scene here through the WEPA Festival that started in Kenny Dorham's Backyard and brought legendary Colombian artists over to connect with the newer generation."

Martinez echoes that sentiment: "He really started to push the more traditional and folkloric elements to these musicians. Everyone's cumbia is more informed by Colombian cumbia now because of Kiko and the artists around him."

Villamizar's spiritual mantra: to give back as much as he takes. That informs everything from his musical themes to his work as a community facilitator. Before releasing 2015's earth-grounded Carribean-fusion debut La Remolacha, Villamizar delved deep into the rainforest to his grandmother's village on the Amazon and asked permission from his ancestors to sing his songs, offering each of his albums to a direction of the earth. Sophomore album Aguas Frías integrated a psychedelic eightpiece band with Indigenous Colombian gaita flutes – a work that brought experimental trio Nemegata to Austin.

"I've always viewed him as a shaman that comes down from the mountains, leaves knowledge, and goes back up with a parrot on his shoulder," Sanchez says of Villamizar.

The new Todo el Mundo went through numerous iterations over several years, starting out as some leftover songs from a 2018 recording session with Quesada that were passed back and forth between Villamizar and collaborators like Shango Deli (known for his work with Carlos Vives), Ospina of Superfónicos, the late Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto member John Fuentes, and Chaka Mahone of Riders Against the Storm.

The album, with a title translating to "All the World," opens with a statement of self: "Yo soy Kiko Villamizar, el hijo de Luz Marina," followed by lead single "Tuya Tulita," a harmony of guitar chords, steady washboard strumming, and inner dialogue.

"'Tuya Tulita' can be interpreted as trying to pull yourself up from your bootstraps, which is bullshit ... nobody is a self-made anything," Villamizar explains. "But at the same time, at what point is your life yours, or does it belong to somebody else?

"This is really an inner dialogue to tell myself that no matter what has happened to me, it's nobody else's fault."

Themes of change, immigration, and the wind as a constantly evolving force push the album forward, as it begins with more traditional folk instrumentation in "Sembrá el Maíz" and breaks down into funkier, more complex rhythms in the title track. The claymation music video for "Todo el Mundo" hammers home the message of all humans coming from one earth – including displaced Indigenous people and immigrants in detention centers. Like the wind, the album moves further away from traditional folk rhythms as you go down the tracklist and closes with bluesy, psychedelic songs like "Poncho" – a funky ballad of a man who wears his poncho when he goes downtown, when he goes to court, when he pays child support, every day.

"Overarchingly, I want people to know that you either take too much of the pot or you don't. You get things and you give things and we are all little hairs on Mother Earth," Villamizar says. "Hurting her is hurting ourselves."

As he explores other creative outlets like stand-up comedy, Villamizar hopes to continue growing his nonprofit at Casa de la Cultura and – like "Sembrá el Maiz" states – not give up planting seeds when things get hard.

"It is a responsibility to light the field for people. As each little task comes, I'll embrace that, but I wouldn't say I have the word on anything yet."

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Beto Martinez as being of Colombian heritage, which is inaccurate, and intimated that he'd grown up, in part, in west Texas, which he did not.

The story was also corrected to remove the claim that Villamizar was instrumental to the formation of Austin-based Colombian bands Nemegata and Superfónicos. Both bands were already established before working with Villamizar.

The Chronicle regrets these errors.

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Kiko Villamizar, Beto Martinez, Nico Sanchez, Grupo Fantasma, Nemegata, Chacka Mahone, Adrian Quesada, Jaime Ospina

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